Every year, Washington churns out various advice columns for liberals on how to talk to their conservative relatives at Thanksgiving. Then conservative outlets make fun of them. It’s a holiday tradition! (And I’m guilty of having written advice for climate advocates on this front, too.) But our politics has changed a lot in the past few years and it’s worth re-examining our sincerely held belief that better discourse at an annual dinner will result in better politics.
First, most people don’t have much of a political ideology. In fact, most people, including most voters, haven’t examined their most deeply held moral and political beliefs. Our politics tend to be a mix of tradition, party loyalty and whatever media we consume or set of elite commentators we trust. And that’s okay, it’s just how it works. So ask yourself…who is your audience? If you’re talking to a hardcore Republican Trump supporter, there’s almost zero chance they’ll ever change their minds. And if you’re talking to a traditional Republican who has voted for the party since Reagan or longer, you’re probably not going to change how they vote, either, at least over the course of a dinner. If a relative is among the 3.6 percent of 2016 voters who went Obama / Trump, that’s another matter, but recognize how rare that is. (By contrast, 1.9 percent of voters went Romney / Clinton.)
Second, let’s recognize that hardcore conservatives don’t write dozens of think-pieces every year about talking to their liberal relatives! That’s because for most conservative elites, compromise only goes one way. This Salon article, for instance, talks about the value of “radical empathy” for liberals who want to connect with hardcore Trump supporters. Can you imagine Breitbart or the Federalist or the Weekly Standard publishing a guide to “radical empathy” for Trump supporters who want to build peace, love and understanding with their progressive relatives? Me neither. Conservatives have done a great job internalizing that they’re right and that they should win elections and that everyone who disagrees with them should lose elections. If liberals had half that conviction, they’d be the dominant force in American politics today.
Third, our ability to change another person’s mind, especially someone we see infrequently has been vastly diminished in recent years. Because of Fox News and online propaganda, the arguments a liberal shares with a conservative almost never stick. You might think you had a very fruitful conversation that built up lots of mutual understanding. But a committed conservative relative is more likely than not to go back to their Facebook feed and Fox News and revert to their mean. They may even misremember what you said or twist the meaning of your argument over time to resolve any cognitive dissonance you’ve created for them. If you’re around someone for days or years, real opinion change can happen. But it won’t happen at an annual dinner because you brought magic talking points. (And this phenomenon definitely goes the other way, too, though the liberal information bubble isn’t quite as well-developed!)
Fourth, while we should always respect one another personally, we shouldn’t confuse that with having to show respect for viewpoints that don’t deserve it. Increasingly, conservative media has convinced millions of people to believe in conspiracy theories. You can’t really argue with a conspiracy theory because it’s based in fear, paranoia and the mistaken belief that one has access to secret information. Hardcore conservatives who think voter fraud is rampant or that climate change is a hoax are just wrong. If they thought antifa were going to stage a coup on November 4th, I don’t know what to tell them. There is no credible evidence for their views, just tons of blog posts, Youtube videos, Twitter personalities, and vapid cable news shows. Further, demonstrating respect for views that are unhinged — that is treating them like normal arguments — mistakenly gives them legitimacy and in some cases can unintentionally re-enforce them. (And, yes, of course some liberals also believe in conspiracy theories…but here’s the difference, they’re not the ones who win primaries and get elected to high office, including the presidency.)
So if you do want to talk about politics at Thanksgiving, know your audience and know your goals.
Focus on persuadable people. The amount of time you spend talking to hardcore right wingers is almost guaranteed to be entirely wasted. Talk to persuadable people instead and know what “persuadable” really means nowadays. Talk especially to younger people in your family whose views haven’t hardened yet. Buy them a book. Ask them about how their generation’s views on politics are shifting. As the Republican Party has drifted rightward, Millennials are abandoning it in droves and becoming more progressive, especially as they look at economic prospects that are WORSE than the ones their parents had. Talk to people who are disaffected by politics, who sat out the last election, and who probably don’t feel like the political system is responsive to them (they’re right!). Ask if there are candidates or issues or changes in our politics being brought about by new movements that give them hope or make them feel optimistic.
Focus on motivation and action, not just opinion. If you’re the type of civic-minded weirdo like me who actually likes talking about politics, you’re probably doing things like contacting your member of Congress, canvassing around elections, and going to organizing meetings. Great! See if you can convince some of your liberal and progressive relatives who aren’t as active to step up their activism game. Traveling for Thanksgiving? Find the door your relative needs to walk through to become more active:
- Make sure they’re registered to vote, especially if they’ve moved recently or are students with the option to register where they go to school.
- See if there’s a local Indivisible chapter they can join.
- Help them sign up for Sister District and Flippable to learn about critical statehouse races.
- Look up their nearest Congressional Swing District for them.
- Send them to groups like Wall of Us that compile actions people can take from multiple groups.
Focus on the consequences policy has for real people. Okay, despite all your best efforts, say you find yourself debating politics with a hardcore conservative relative at the dinner table. Don’t get sucked into debating a conspiracy theory or getting distracted by conservative memes that don’t affect people’s lives every day. Just say, “That sounds wrong. Republicans voted to take away my healthcare and that hurts me and my family. That’s what I are about.” Or say, “I’m really not interested in debating whether or not you like CNN. I care about the fact that Republicans voted to pass massive tax cuts for the wealthy. That’s not right.”
Stick to the stuff you care about, whatever it is. Ask for real responses to your questions. Don’t accept evasive answer as responsive. Don’t buy into false equivalencies or imagined hypocrisies. Focus on what politics means in our everyday lives: healthcare, higher wages, civil rights, clean air.
Hardcore conservatives will also pick up on various arguments about their views being suppressed or that others are being intolerant toward them. More recently, I’ve started to see and hear conservatives describe disagreement with their views as a form of “bigotry,” too. Further, a lot of conservative commentary nowadays focuses on culture war issues instead of policy because Republican policy is wildly unpopular.
So be prepared to say things like: “You can say whatever you want, other people don’t have to agree with it or even think it’s interesting or based in reality. I’m saying I care about issues that affect me and my family and if you can’t recognize that, I don’t see why you want to talk to me about politics.”
Or say, “Look, I hear what you’re saying, I just disagree with you. I don’t want to wake up every morning wondering if the people you voted for are going to take away my healthcare. If you don’t care about that, then I can’t help you understand why I disagree with you.”
Or you can go for the Lebowski: “Yeah, well, that’s just like, your opinion…man.”
Seriously, shut up about politics. 2017 sucks! Oh, except for that wave election. That was pretty sweet. Effective activism also means taking a break sometimes! Pass the stuffing and think about all the doors you’re going to knock for awesome progressive candidates in 2018.